Thursday, November 19, 2020

Heroes for the '90s! #1: January 1990

My Secret Origin

What If...? #9
Writer: Roy Thomas
Penciller: Rich Buckler
Inker: Sam Delarosa
Colorist: Evelyn Stein


I bought the book that started my 30-year obsession with comics when I was 12 years old, but my fascination with superheroes and cartooning goes back much further.

By all accounts my first pop culture love was Sesame Street. Now before I get lost trying to trace Super Grover to Watchmen, I’ll instead say that it might actually have been Sesame Street’s sister show, the Electric Company – which stopped production of its initial run the year I was born, but lived on in reruns long enough for me to watch as a preschooler – that actually sparked the fire. The Electric Company not only featured the superhero Letterman, but also the ongoing “Spidey Super Stories” segment, introducing me to my favorite super-hero, Spider-Man. When I was around six years old, I would meet him in person at a toy store in Decatur, a high point of my young life.

One of my most vivid and happy Christmas memories is of waking up to find the fireplace mantle in my grandparents’ house in Bowling Green, Kentucky lined Underoos: Boba Fett, Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern. 

The debut of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe when I was in first grade blew my young mind. While not strictly superheroes, I mean, come on, they pretty much were. A bunch of muscled men and women in colorful costumes with an array of inventive powers battling one another? My favorite aspect of the Masters of the Universe were those costumes and character designs. Those are what really set my little imagination reeling. By second grade, circa 1983, I had created my own superhero alter-ego, Super Paul, who had a bulbous nose and his own legion of allies and enemies. These are sadly lost to time, but were likely mostly rip-offs of MoTU characters.

Superheroes lived on the periphery of my experience through early adolescence. I had a Mighty Marvel Super Heroes Fun Book from Fireside that I often perused, wondering who exactly all these costumed people were. But I was more into G.I. Joe, M.A.S.K., and Transformers than Marvel or DC. Part of that was an issue of exposure. The only superheroes on TV in the early 1980s were The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, and while I was a faithful viewer of both of these programs, they weren’t enough to drive me to comic books. Neither were the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, all of which I watched repeatedly.

As I grew I developed a healthy interest in comics and cartooning, driven largely by old Peanuts paperbacks that belonged to my mom, Garfield and Heathcliff collections, and the twin powerhouses of Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. I decided I would like to be a cartoonist one day, and would most likely take over from Bill Waterson or Charles Schulz when they decided to retire. As I reached junior high, this morphed into an ambition to become the editor-in-chief of MAD Magazine.

In retrospect, my obsession with MAD probably walked me right into comics, since they were positioned next to each other on the magazine racks. But that summer after sixth grade provided the clearest antecedent: On June 23, 1989 the Tim Burton-directed, Michael Keaton-starring Batman movie premiered, and like a good portion of the country I was swept up in Batmania. I saw it at least three times in the theater. I ate the cereal, I collected the movie cards, I put the poster on my wall, I read the novelization, and I bought the toys. The 1960s Batman show began showing up in reruns again, and I went to the campus theater with my step-mom and dad to see the 1966 film on the big screen in rerelease.

It’s no surprise then, that I bought my first comic books that winter. But it wasn’t Batman comics that reeled me in. When I had to go grocery shopping with my mom at Jewel Osco on Oakland Avenue, it became my habit to beeline to the magazine display at the back of the store. One day circa November 1989 I started flipping through the comics and became fascinated with one called What If…?, a title I’d later learn reimagined pivotal moments in Marvel history. This particular issue - “What If the X-Men Died on their First Mission?” - examined an alternate reality in which the story told in Giant-Size X-men #1 (1975), the book that introduced Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, and others as X-Men and revived the franchise, instead ended in tragedy.

The writer of this issue, Roy Thomas, had a long history with the X-Men. He was actually the team’s second regular writer, taking over from Stan Lee with 1966’s #20 and guiding the characters for two years. After about a year away, in which Doom Patrol co-creator Arnold Drake wrote the book, Roy returned to the X-Men and saw the title through to issue #66 (1970), the final issue before the book went into reprints for five years. And he though his brief stint as Marvel’s editor-in-chief ended the year before Giant-Size X-Men’s publication, it’s likely he had a guiding hand in making it happen.

For this What If…? story Thomas basically took the events of Giant-Size X-Men and its immediate follow-ups, Uncanny X-Men 94 and 95, and reimagined them. In this new reality, all of the X-Men, old and new, perish in space. Only Professor X and the Beast (who at that time was an Avenger, not an X-Man), survive. But when Count Nefaria and his Ani-Men take over a nuclear missile base, Beast has no choice but to call together a new group of mutants to defeat the villain. The team he calls together is full of familiar characters who at that point hadn’t been X-Men before: Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Theresa Rourke Cassidy (Banshee’s daughter), Namorita (Namor’s cousin), Rahne Sinclair, and James Proudstar (brother of Thunderbird, who had the misfortune to die in Giant-Size X-Men #1 in both realities). They save the day and then band together as the new X-Men.

What’s interesting about this particular team is how it drew from history while presaging a few developments that had yet to occur. Rahne of course was the New Mutant Wolfsbane, though here recruited to Xavier’s school at a much younger age than she would be in the main reality. Theresa had debuted in a 1981 Spider-Woman story, and then had joined the X-Men orbit in the 1987 Fallen Angels mini-series. She would go on to join X-Force in the 1990s, and so would James Proudstar. In fact, the latter’s story in that book seems to be lifted directly from this issue of What If. The use of Namorita was also intriguing, considering that just a few months after the publication of this issue, she’d join a different team, the New Warriors.

Thomas ends the issue with a nice little joke that was funny at the time but became even funnier in the 1990s as the number X-Men-related books ballooned: “It seems there will always be ‘X-Men,’” the Watcher says, “And ‘X-Factor,’ and ‘New Mutants,’ and ‘Excalibur…’”

Of course at the time I bought this issue I didn’t quite get the joke, nor did I understand any of the history I just outlined above. In fact, I don’t even remember what it was that drew me to that particular comic book. Why did I choose to lay down my (or my mom’s) $1.25 for an alternate reality tale about characters I knew nothing of? Well, I believe the fact that it was all foreign and seemingly impenetrable was actually a draw. I wanted to know who all these characters were and how they fit together and what their histories were. 

Rich Buckler’s cover was another draw. The emotion and drama of it still strikes me even now. I have a hard time believing, however, that his inside art set me on fire in any way. Buckler – an artist with a long list of credits at both DC and Marvel since the 1970s – has a style I’d call workmanlike, and I don’t mean that as an insult to his skills: His draftsmanship and layouts are solid, and place storytelling over all else. He worked very much the “house” Marvel style of the 1970s and 1980s, typified by John Buscema and How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. It’s a style that was already somewhat antiquated by the late-‘80s and would become nearly extinct within a couple of years.

Now I’m still objective enough to know that What If… #9 was no comics masterpiece. Rereading it now, I realize there’s not a ton of nuance or depth to the story. But it strikes me that some of the elements I most value in comic book stories are present in this one, namely alternate realities, unlikely teams, new beginnings, and the power of legacies. So I can draw a direct line from this particular comic book to those proclivities. This book also made me a lifelong fan of Dr. Henry McCoy, the Beast (more on him right here and here).

Most significantly, What If… #9 also made me want to read more comics. 

When I look now at the list of comics that were released the following month (February 1990 cover dates) it’s clear that my dabbling quickly turned into a preoccupation. The covers of Avengers 314, Avengers Westcoast 44, Fantastic Four 337, New Mutants 86, Silver Surfer 34, and Web of Spider-Man 61 – featuring art by the likes of Paul Ryan, Walter Simonson, Ron Lim, Alex Saviuk, Rob Liefeld – are all burned inside my brain, and looking at them now fires the same neurons that fired when I was 12 years old.

I was hooked.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Heroes for the '90s!: An Introduction

Riddle Me This
What do you think of when you hear the words “Superhero comics in the 1990s”?

Holographic covers? Gritted teeth? Improbably large guns? Polybags? Exclusive trading cards? Superman’s “death”? Image Comics? Foil-embossed covers? Marvel’s bankruptcy? Wizard Magazine? Cross-hatching? Pouches?

All of the above?

We rarely know what’s going to define a certain period of time while we’re still the midst of it.  Trends in fashion, music, graphic design, TV, etc. are kind of like a plant or a child. They’re changing every day, but you don’t notice it happening. Only later can we really take stock of what went on before. One of the stranger aspects of entering middle age is seeing eras you lived through – and remember well – gain an identity. 

It has been really weird for me to witness the 1990s boiled down to its defining aspects. There were certain things we knew at the time would be part of the story: grunge music, flannel shirts, the swing revival. Others have come as a surprise, at least to me: oversized t-shirts, boy bands with odd facial hair, Nickelodeon cartoons, hackey sack. Once an era does gain definition, that identity often focuses on the big trends, and thus ends up feeling superficial and reductive, never quite matching how it felt to really live it.

This is definitely what has happened to the view of superhero comics in the 1990s. The exaggerated artwork and gimmicky sales techniques and massive shifts in status quo all happened, and they were all huge, but they are also far from the whole story. I know because I was there!

When the idea occurred to me to write a history of superhero comics in the 1990s, one of my big goals was to present a wider picture of the decade than what we’re used to seeing. I’ve always been drawn to lesser-known stories, the ones in danger of being forgotten in time’s unending march. In the 1990s these lesser-known stories include the fact that classic-style storytelling and artwork made a resurgence, new superhero universes were born and died at an alarming rate, and black superheroes and creators came into their own.

This is also personal to me. I started reading comic books religiously in late 1989, and in fact due to the two month lag between actual release date and cover date, the first books I bought were cover-dated January 1990. I temporarily quit following new comics in the later months of 1999. So the story of comics in the 1990s is also the story of the first and most formative phase of my 30-years of comic fandom. 

A Few Words About Format
Writing a comprehensive history of something takes obsession and focus, and is the act is always in danger of becoming untenable. This level of difficulty increases with the scope of the topic. My history of Random House’s Beginner Books line covered several decades and over 100 books, and that took me over two years to research and write. There were at least 100 comics released each month in the 1990s, which adds up to over 14,000 different books. I’d already decided to narrow my scope to only superhero comics published by DC and Marvel, but estimated that would only reduce the workload by about 20%. To try to cover everything would take several years. And the end result would be either tediously long or frustratingly superficial.

While trying to solve this problem, I flirted briefly with the idea of focusing on just one year, say the eventful 1993, but that wouldn’t have been personally satisfying because it wouldn’t have allowed me to write about all of the runs and creators I want to. Next, I hit on the idea of picking one Marvel or DC comic from each of the 120 months comprising the 1990s, and writing an essay about each one. I went so far as to choose all 120 issues, but in that process I realized 120 essays was simply too...much...content.

So, I went backwards. I wrote out a list of creators, characters, runs, and trends that I definitely wanted to discuss, and then picked the individual comics that lent themselves to that. I ended up with 38 comics. Though this approach sacrifices comprehensiveness, I hope it will gain a level of depth it couldn’t have had before. I won’t be able to discuss every single significant comic book of the 1990s (I’m not writing about Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels, for instance), but I do believe that, when taken in whole, this body of essays will present a vivid picture of superhero comics at the Big Two in the 1990s.

Though I’m going to approach this project with the same level of detailed research as I have my published books, this will ultimately have a different tone. In my books, I aim for as much nonjudgmental clarity as I can muster. My interests, values, and opinions come through, but in subtle ways. Because this is an extremely personal project for me, those interests, values, and opinions are going to be more directly stated. Many of the essays will also illuminate some aspect of the growth and evolution of my comics fandom.

Each essay will be numbered, just like comic books are, but will also be “new-reader friendly,” meaning you don’t have to read them in order, or read all of them. But if I do my job right there’ll be a cumulative effect, just as though you were reading these in a book.

Before we get to that though, there’s some context I’d like you to have.

Superhero Comics from the 1960s to the 1980s
As the 1990s dawned, DC and Marvel were on different trajectories, but that was nothing new. When the modern Marvel universe debuted in 1963, DC was already cruising along with a refreshed line that centered on the the perennially popular Superman and Batman, but also included new versions of their 1940s characters, including Green Lantern, Flash, and Hawkman. The major heroes had banded together as the Justice League of America in 1960. The remarkable success of Marvel’s rapid-growth superhero universe - Fantastic Four, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man - and their mix of the conversational and the cosmic didn’t really change much about how DC operated. Their stories remained straight-laced and static, imaginary or of no lasting consequence. Character development was practically non-existent, and impactful new characters came along in drips and drabs.

In the 1970s, both companies allowed their superhero universes to become shaggy and a bit weird, but 1978 would be the year that set the course for both companies. DC, after attempting to match Marvel’s prodigious output, ended up cancelling 24 titles in what would be known as the DC Implosion. Marvel, meanwhile, ended its carousel of editors-in-chief and gave the job to a brash 27-year-old named Jim Shooter. He ushered in some fantastically beloved runs, including Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and John Byrne’s Fantastic Four.

Partly thanks to Shooter's micro-managing of talent, and partly thanks to its decision to start offering royalties to creators, DC in the 1980s reimagined itself as a creator-friendly haven willing to take chances on risky ideas. They allowed Marv Wolfman and George Perez to reinvent the Teen Titans to great success, and then gave the same team the keys to streamline the entire DC Universe with Crisis on Infinite Earths, resulting in, among other things, the John Byrne-helmed Superman reboot in 1986. That same year, DC published Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, both of which redefined the parameters of superhero stories. Those two blockbusters weren’t “in continuity,” meaning that DC’s mainstream universe continued on a somewhat staid (and low-selling) course, though the infusion of new writers brought character development and actual change into the DCU.

Under Jim Shooter Marvel reached new highs of commercial success, especially with the 1984 Secret Wars mini-series he wrote himself. But his 1986 New Universe – an attempt to create a new superhero continuity – was mostly a sales flop, piercing his air of invincibility. He was fired in 1987, and replaced by Tom DeFalco, who had helped found the lucrative Star Comics imprint that focused on licensed properties such as Heathcliff and Muppet Babies. In 1989, the Warner/Time merger gave DC huge media presence, which coincided perfectly with the release of Tim Burton’s mega-hit Batman film.
As 1990 arrived, DC pursued a path laid out by the success of Batman combined with their past acclaim for adult-oriented takes on their heroes. Marvel, meanwhile, was guided by DeFalco’s child-friendly outlook and undying admiration of the Stan Lee/ Jack Kirby / Steve Ditko era.

That’s where our story starts, but there’s still a bit more you need to know.

Superheroes Weren’t Cool in the 1990s
We are currently in the midst of the salad days of superhero fandom and nerd culture. There are DC and Marvel movies, TV shows, video games, and merchandise everywhere you look. Nearly any past issue of a comic you’re looking for is available in a collection or online. You can find fellow fans easily, and everyone from infants to dudebros wear shirts with Green Lantern and Black Panther logos.

It was not always like this. Believe me. In the 1990s superheroes were extremely niche. It was exceedingly rare to see any evidence of them anywhere in mainstream culture, which is partly what made the success of the 1989 Batman movie so very exciting. Now people know once-obscure characters like Cyborg, Rocket Raccoon, and Captain Marvel (back then she was Ms. Marvel, or Binary if you were nasty). Now everyone recognizes Stan Lee on sight. Libraries and bookstores are filled with superhero “graphic novels” (we called them "trade paperbacks" in the 1990s) for all ages.

And in those pre-Internet, pre-Big Bang Theory, pre-Stranger Things days being a fan of science fiction/comics/anime/video games/role-playing games did not make you a part of an empowered geek culture. It made you uncool, and being uncool was mortifying. When it came to superheroes and comics liking them also set you up as a target for derision. Superheroes and comic books were for little kids and the sub-literate, so you had to hide that aspect of yourself.

The massive changes in the visibility, accessibility, and acceptance of superheroes and comic books didn’t happen in the 1990s, but the seeds were planted then.

What to Expect
Though I like to think 18 years as a teacher have given me the ability to make topics accessible even to those without great background knowledge, but I’ll warn in advance that there might be some stuff that flies by you if you aren’t a comics fan. I will however, be sure to explain the important bits.

It occurs to me that a good introduction should give you some idea of what to expect. So here’s just a partial list of the characters and creators I’ll be covering:

Zero Hour, the New Warriors, Starman, Legion of Super-Heroes, Batman Adventures, X-Men: The Animated Series, Wally West, Azrael, Amalgam, Ultraverse, Milestone, Impact, 2099, Spider-Girl, Rise of the Supermen, Kingdom Come, Justice Society of America, Image, John Byrne, Rob Liefeld, Mark Gruenwald, Todd McFarlane, Bret Blevins, Mike Parobeck, Mike Wieringo, Ron Lim, Dwayne McDuffie, Ron Frenz, Paul Ryan, and Fabian Nicieza. Whew!

Look for a new essay every Thursday (in honor of the day of the week when new comic books were released the 1990s). I’ll post on my Facebook and Twitter pages, but if you enter your e-mail address at the top right sidebar, you will be notified every time I publish a new essay.

Thanks for coming along on this journey with me.